The character of Andrew Neimann is a young, jazz drummer played by BAFTA nominated Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), in a tour-de-force performance. Andrew idolizes musician Buddy Rich, and is pursuing his own musical dreams by attending school at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. The catalyst for the film is when he is overheard practicing one evening by Terrence Fletcher, portrayed by Golden Globe and Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons (The Closer). Fletcher, the conductor of Shaffer’s top tier band, is a mercurial character, and Simmons gives an indelible performance which, in the hands of a less talented actor, might have come across as a one-dimensional bully. After a short duration of time, Fletcher will have Andrew join his band as an alternate drummer. Thinking he has achieved the first big break in order to make his musical aspirations come true, Andrew has no idea what he is in store for. Fletcher’s personal mantra is that there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’
The compelling, exhilarating, and tension filled “Whiplash” was written and directed by Oscar nominated Damien Chazelle (Grand Piano). The 107 minute movie premiered on January 16, 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival. Chazelle’s initial attempts at securing financial backing for the project failed. Not deterred, he originally filmed “Whiplash” as a short, which he entered into Sundance in 2013. J.K Simmons played Fletcher in the short film, but another actor, Johnny Simmons, no relation to J.K., acted the role of Andrew. Chazelle’s decision turned out to be the right one, as the film went on to win the Short Film Jury Award, and afterward, he got the financing he needed. (As an aside: A portion of the movie was based on Chazelle’s own real life experience as a member of his high school band. He has stated in interviews that he felt intimidated by his instructor).
Not the first month, two weeks, or even a full day of class with Fletcher goes by without Andrew realizing what kind of hair-trigger temper Fletcher possesses. On the first day, Fletcher dismisses Metz (C.J. Vana), a member of the band, for simply being out of tune. The only thing is, the particular member he gets rid of, after insulting him, is not the musician who committed the error. Fletcher, however, feels that Metz deserved to get dismissed because he didn’t know he wasn’t out of tune. In time, Andrew falls victim to Fletcher’s intensity and expectations, which border on the psychotic: Slaps to the face for being off tempo, constant cursing and put downs, a chair thrown at him, bleeding from the blisters that have formed on his fingers, are all things Andrew deals with throughout the film.
A brief ray of sunshine in Andrews life is his relationship with Nicole played by Melissa Benoist (Glee). She works the concession stand at the movie theater he goes to with his kind hearted father, Jim, who loves him unconditionally. In the role of Jim is Golden Globe nominee Paul Reiser (Mad About You). Any happiness he manages to achieve with Nicole, however, is ended soon after Andrew rises to be a core drummer in the band; music becomes Andrew’s sole focus, in essence, his very reason for existence. He informs Nicole that he can no longer be in a relationship with her because she would only serve as an impediment to his reaching his full potential. The scene where he ends their relationship, imparts to the viewer, that Andrew, while certainly not on the same maniacal level as Fletcher, can also be out of touch with reality at times when it comes to his pursuit of perfection.
Things escalate to a dangerous level for Andrew, not just mentally, but physically. Already pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion, while speeding to make a performance on time, after being threatened by Fletcher that he would lose his place in the band if he doesn’t arrive on time, Andrew gets into a car accident. Climbing out of the wreckage, and bleeding, Andrew runs the rest of the way to the competition. He attempts to play, but his wounds understandably affect his performance, and he can’t drum. For his efforts, Fletcher turns his threat into a reality, and kicks him out of the band. Andrew responds by attacking Fletcher. His actions cause him to be expelled from school, but also puts him in contact with a lawyer who is investigating Fletcher over his conduct; behavior which is believed to have caused one of his former students to commit suicide. Andrew, half-heartedly agrees to participate in the investigation. (As an aside: Teller wound up breaking two of Simmons ribs during the scene where he attacks him).
What will become of Andrew’s dreams of being a musician? Does he attend another school and continue with his studies under a more genteel professor? Does he just go for it and begin playing music anywhere someone will hire him? What happens to Fletcher? Does he continue teaching at Shaffer? Do the actions he has taken against a former student, whose death he is being blamed for, come back to haunt him? Will Andrew and Fletcher ever cross paths again? How will they act toward one another if they do? All of those questions and more will be answered by the conclusion of the highly critically acclaimed film.
The movie which takes its title from a piece of music written by Hank Levy, might at first sound like it is going to be predictable, but winds up being the opposite. Skillful editing by BAFTA and Oscar winner Tom Cross (Two Lovers) and the spot on cinematography by Sharone Meir (Mean Creek) help serve to further enhance the film, making it worthy of all of the accolades it has received. In my view the film can be perceived in one of two ways. Firstly, as a cautionary tale, as to the dangers of an unyielding drive to achieve the zenith level of excellence in a chosen profession. Secondly, as a harsh truth to those who seek to occupy the number one spot in whatever they do, that an individual must often make sacrifices beyond anything they could have imagined in order to obtain greatness.